ISTANBUL: The opposition Syrian National Coalition elected a moderate Islamist as provisional prime minister yesterday, hoping to avoid being sidelined as world powers renew diplomatic efforts to end the civil war.
The SNC has long sought recognition as a government in exile, but has been hampered by internal divisions and varying pressures from its Arab and Western backers. The election of 48-year-old opposition campaigner Ahmad Tumeh is meant to show it can fulfil that role.
Coalition sources said the decision to proceed with naming a provisional government went ahead despite opposition from the United States, which hopes to convene, along with Russia, a peace conference in Geneva that could come up with a transitional administration.
That follows a deal between Russia and the United States over President Bashar Al Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal that could lead to efforts towards a wider settlement of the two-and-a-half year conflict.
Tumeh said his priority would be restoring order to areas of Syria no longer controlled by Assad.
“The priority of my government will be to restore stability in the liberated areas, improve their living conditions and provide security,” Tumeh told Reuters after his election at an SNC meeting in Istanbul.
Tumeh addressed coalition members as “comrades on the path to freedom,” and indicated that the SNC would not compromise on a deal that could keep Assad in power.
“The Syrian people carried their lives and marched for freedom, not to improve the conditions of their serfdom,” Tumeh said, adding that he would name his cabinet shortly.
In a closed door briefing, Tumeh told the coalition that the provisional government would operate from northern Syria, members present told Reuters.
It will be a task fraught with risk, with Al Qaeda-linked militants, with a significant presence in the north, ideologically opposed to moderates such as Tumeh, who has preached tolerance and democratic change during a long political career.
The SNC appointed its first provisional prime minister in March, but that bid to create
a government-in-exile fizzled out.
SNC member Khaled Khoja said the new provisional government had to prove itself quickly or the coalition as a whole would be undermined, to the benefit of the more hardline Islamists.
“News of (the US-Russian) agreement cast a shadow over the appointment of the prime minister,” Khoja said.
“I think the government issue is not on their agenda. They are not keen to see this government on board. They (the Americans) wanted to agree on a government through Geneva, not before,” Khoja said.